Sleep Well – Train & Race Better
This often neglected aspect of training & racing could possibly be the missing ingredient to reaching your full potential as an athlete. Are you getting enough?
Dedicated athletes leave no stone unturned in their eternal quest for performance improvements. They log many of hours on fatigued legs and nasty weather and train alone on stretches of roads all by themselves as they grind out interval workouts that push them both mentally and physically to the next level of ability. Despite this extraordinary dedication, most athletes grossly neglect an aspect of training & recovery that would seem to be common sense: sleep.
Sleep is not just something that athletes should not “make an effort” to do – it speeds up recovery after workouts. And research shows that getting adequate sleep reduces the risk of serious health issues such as obesity, cancer, heart disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure and diabetes, and prevents the general impairment of our immune system.
Does training improve sleep quality?
We sleep in four stages, alternating between non-rapid eye movement and rapid eye movement. Each sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes and has a different function. Anabolism – the rebuilding of damage muscle tissues associated with activity – takes place mainly in stages three and four, when we are in deep sleep and growth hormone activity is high while other physical processes such as heartbeat and breathing slow down.
According to Roy Stevenson, research data gathered from athletes who engage in consistent endurance training, report falling asleep quickly, sleep deeper, wake up less often during the night and have lower levels of fatigue during the day. Scientists have shown that people who exercise regularly spend more time in sleep stages three and four slow wave sleep, the window of prime physical recuperation. A study published in Psychophysiology found that athletes spent 18% longer in stage four sleep than non-fit people.
One study in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity concluded that physically active men and women slept longer and took less time to fall asleep. Several other study show that when individuals first take up training, their sleep quality is improved, and that exercising longer than one hour daily further improve sleep quality.
When is the best time of day to train to ensure a good sleep?
There is much debate over this question. Exercising intensely for 20 to 30 minutes raises your core body temperature at least 2°. Exercising immediately before going to sleep will delay your transition into deeper sleep because it takes 4 to 5 hours to cool the body’s core body temperature back down to normal levels. Based on this information, it is recommended that you train at least 3 to 4 hours before bedtime. Exercise scientists also think that training too close to bedtime leaves the sympathetic nervous system over stimulated for several hours, making falling asleep more difficult. But like everything in training, trial and error will likely be the best way to find out what works the best for you as an athlete.
Does sleep loss impair performance?
Sleep loss has been shown to cause a cascade of undesirable effects ranging from impaired endocrine and immune system function to reductions in memory and concentration. Additionally, sleep deprived athletes often complain that subjectively, their training & racing feel “much harder” than usual – so don’t expect to feel good during or after the race either. Another disadvantage of sleep deprivation for athletes is that it takes longer to recover from races due to elevated stress hormone levels; several study show that catecholamine and cortisol increase with the combination of sleep deprivation and high intensity exercise/racing.
How much sleep do we need?
Research indicates that athletes need between 7 1/2 – 9 ½ hours of sleep per night. Most Americans average only seven hours of sleep, with one third averaging six hours or fewer per night. For those athletes that are able to train twice a day, you should add a 1-2 hour nap after your first training session – this will enhance your body’s natural productions of hGH (human growth hormone).
How to Prepare for Optimum Sleep
- Work on deep belly breathing – click here for an instructional video
- Maintain a regular bed & wake up schedule, including on the weekends
- Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine (relaxing hot bath 1 to 2 hours before bedtime, meditation or breathing exercises)
- Before heading to bed, skip watching the news, eating a big meal, planning or problem-solving. People tend to fall asleep if their bodies are relaxed and their minds are not focused on anything stimulating.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol close to bedtime.
As Mr. Stevenson states, perhaps it’s time you evaluated your sleep habits to see whether you’re allowing yourself enough sleep for maximum athletic performance. Remember that the constant cycle of overload, followed by adaptation recovery is what improves your training, week by week and month by month. It’s critical that you give yourself enough sleep to recover from your training and racing.